BUTTE, Mont. — Workers wrapped up soil remediation at two schools in Butte after finding high levels of lead and arsenic. Now they’re working on three more.
Out of 21 sites tested, five showed signs of lead and arsenic.
“Butte High School, the Silver Bow Montessori School, West School, the former Lincoln School, which is now a Head Start facility, and then the Aware Early Head Start facility -- all had exceedances," said Michael Mcanulty, liability manager with Atlantic Richfield.
Tests conducted in July through August showed lead levels as highest, with one result at Butte High showing over 5,000 milligrams. That’s less than one tablespoon of salt.
The Environmental Protection Agency said they’re not concerned.
“Even though there are elevated metals in the soils of those five schools, that the risk is very low and the possibility of exposure is also extremely low," explained Dr. Charles Partridge, toxicologist with the EPA. "So even though we're going to clean them up as soon as we can and make those schools a priority, there's really no reason for us to fence off anything or put up any signs."
They’re treating schools like residential areas, outlined in the Residential Metals Abatement Program.
It's all part of a deal between Silver Bow County, the EPA and Atlantic Richfield.
The EPA tests for any levels above 1,200 milligrams of lead, 250 milligrams of arsenic and 147 milligrams of mercury. Anything that tests below those levels does not need to be removed.
For schools that tested over these levels, 12 inches of soil will be removed in designated areas.
Both Butte High and Aware Early Head Start have a combination of around 25,000 square feet that needs to be removed and replaced -- the two biggest projects.
“We'll focus on certain smaller areas, conduct the excavation, backfill the area with lime, clean soil and then sod it, then move on to the next one," said Mcanulty. "So those may be projects two, three or four weeks in duration to complete, but we're looking to start some of that work perhaps as early as next week.”
Other schools, like West and Lincoln Head Start, are already restored.
At those completed projects, workers removed contaminated soil, putting it in the repository so it wouldn’t contaminate other locations.
The soil that is used as its replacement is then tested before being laid down.
Afterward, it’s up to the city to decide if they want to test for levels in the future.
But after tests in the 1980s and 1990s showed less lead, arsenic and mercury, many are wondering where these toxins came from in the first place.
"There is a high potential that there's historic mine waste there," said Nikia Greene, project manager. "But that's just an assumption. It could be the source, but we don't know that, and we're not going to go search for that. We're just going to clean it up.”
The project won't be complete until all the Butte school soils are restored, with lead, arsenic and mercury back at acceptable standards set by local and federal agencies.